Top FPV teams head to Dubai – but what will they find?
Dozens of world-class FPV drone racing teams – some famed, some perhaps about to be – are heading to Dubai to battle for a $1 million purse in the World Drone Prix’s (WDP) premier event.
If the new global competition lives up to its own hype, the live-streamed races on March 11-12 will be a milestone for the sport. With an unprecedented prize of $250,000 promised to the top team, the contest could unequivocally establish drone racing as a viable professional sport.
But with logistics only coming together in the final weeks and WDP organizers still releasing new race details to teams, fans and pilots are wondering if they can really pull off a fair and polished event.
Teams from Tokyo to Los Angeles are converging on the UAE city with some familiar names at the controls, including U.S. Drone Nationals champ Chad Nowak (as Rotor Riot Nowak), Furadi (on Team Hovership) and fellow DRL Season 1 competitor FlyingBear (with Airvuz), and MetallDanny (piloting for Tornado XBlades rather than his usual Team MRP).
High-profile FPV pilot Charpu was also picked to join them, but announced this week he was dropping out after his “passport and visa didn’t make it in time.”
WDP organizers are covering travel expenses for 32 teams. They notified the qualifying teams at the end of last month, about a week before they would need to depart for the competition.
What to look for in Dubai
The sleek Dubai racetrack – promotional photos show a raised matte white structure that looks like a cross between maglev train tracks and fish bones – has unusual demands for pilots and their teams of navigators, managers, technicians and pit stop personnel.
For one, it’s lengthy, just over 7 km (4.35 miles) of flight in total. Each lap covers 591 meters, not including alternate routes. The entire heat might be between four and five minutes of airtime. With full-speed quads discharging their batteries in rapid gulps, this will force teams to make at least one battery change.
That is where the pit stop personnel – and delicate flying – come in. Pilots must vertically land in the pit stop area. Depending on what this area looks like on the Dubai track, it could be a difficult maneuver. Quads’ cameras are angled up to compensate for the drone pointing down as it shoots forward. When dropping vertically, FPV pilots may see nothing but arid Dubai sky in their goggles.
While teams are doing what they can to practice the pit stop ahead of Dubai, it will still be an unfamiliar procedure to many. “I usually fly really hard for one battery, and then crash land,” said pilot Ken Loo, better known as FlyingBear. Loo interprets the vertical landing rule to mean that a chute may separate the pits from the track. “I’m expecting that to be a very interesting part of the race track where people are going to see a lot of damage. If there is anywhere on the track where a crowd is going to gather to be entertained it might be right there.”
Organizers released the layout of the Dubai track this week. It includes a ‘shortcut lane’ which pilots can opt to take once per race, and a winding ‘joker lane’ detour that pilots must take at least once. But a stylized diagram only reveals so much, noted Jerome Demers, team leader for Team Moka: “We all know that the real thing will be different.”
Teams also have tough decisions to make on gear. Organizers left the choice of frame and propeller sizes open, but list hardware requirements that include a hefty custom HD camera and a video transmitter which may conflict with the standard 2.4 GHz frequency for radio controls. Given the heavy payload and long distance to cover, many teams are steering towards larger batteries and longer propellers, at the risk of more sluggish quads.
But with lingering uncertainty over exact technical requirements, competitors are bringing contingency plans.
“We are nimble and focused on being ready for anything,” said Paul Kellett, CEO of DroneXLabs, a maker of high-performance racing multicopters which is supporting five pilots in Dubai across several teams (including DRONEXLABS and DRONE X LABS – RTF TEAM). “We will take an array of hardware with us, have a team of engineers ready to make changes at a moment’s notice to our DXL racing quads and leave the minor details out of our minds.”
What will this mean for each team’s odds? The driving characteristics for the World Drone Prix have been its inventiveness and unpredictability. The racetrack’s appearance is novel, the length and pit stop requirements are unusual, and teams are learning new details just days before they leave for Dubai. Adaptation is key – but adaptation takes time and money.
This race could begin to divide the amateur and semi-pro pilots, who must fit their practice around day jobs, from the would-be professional FPV racers who are dedicating full days to the sport and can respond immediately to new information. Raw talent will not be enough in Dubai: teams’ capacities for procurement, engineering and training will make the difference.
Pilots frustrated but dreaming big
The playing field is tilting, which makes the World Drone Prix’s last-minute organizing all the more frustrating for teams forced to revise plans overnight. Technical specifications for the custom HD camera system, for instance, were released only this week. Some teams needed to adjust its location on their drones, potentially upsetting their battery placement and pit stop technique.
“At this point we are probably 50/50 if we are going to go or not, there are so many variables, rumors and unknowns,” said KruelFPV of Miami-based team Gravity Goons. “Obviously we could just take the free trip to Dubai and just have fun, but we have jobs, families and responsibilities. If we were going to go it wasn’t going to be just for a vacation, we want to compete.”
“The information coming from the organization has been sparse and the timing
left us wishing for more detail at an earlier point,” agreed Kellett of DroneXLabs. But he emphasized that this is an ambitious, if predictably bumpy, start for a hoped-for new era in the sport. “Drone racing events of this magnitude are in their infancy so we rely on our competition experience, pilots’ judgement and well-tuned hardware to be able to accommodate whatever obstacles are put in front of us.”
“We are looking forward to seeing lots of the main characters in the sport at this event and having a phenomenal experience to kick off what is only going to become a global sport with massive following over the next year.”